How can we adapt an inherently gendered language — French — so everyone can find their place in it? This is a crucial question when it comes to any bilingual, public-facing messaging, like job postings. Because it’s clear that the language of Molière is often far more gendered than that of Shakespeare.
My name is Marie-Sophie Bézert, and I’m part of the linguistic services team at CDS. In our small team, we’re passionate about languages, and more specifically about the complexities of French. Every day, we juggle words to strike a balance between a gendered language and the inclusivity we’re committed to as public servants.
Here is a little more background information on what we’re working on, along with some potential solutions to make our writing more inclusive.
The Government of Canada: Bilingualism and inclusivity
One of the guiding values of public service is respect for people. It is our duty to treat all people with dignity and fairness. One of our values at CDS is to put people at the heart of our services. Inclusivity, diversity, and accessibility are at the very core of everything we do. In a nutshell, we make sure everyone is included and treated the same way. When communicating with the public or designing public-facing tools, we need to make sure everyone feels involved, included, and represented, regardless of their age or gender. And of course, this is all done in both of Canada’s official languages!
French: A gendered, binary language
It’s on this last point where things get complicated. Expressing gender is not as simple in every language, and this difference is evident even between Canada’s official languages. In French, every single object is either feminine or masculine, be it a house or a hose, and almost all nouns are gendered. Unlike English, French doesn’t have a neutral pronoun like “they/them”. Even if it did, the same issue would arise when adding adjectives and participles, which, in most cases, must match the gender of the pronoun. And on top of all that, masculine “trumps” feminine when referring to the members of a mixed group: if a group of 100 people is made up of 99 women and one man, in the plural form, its members will be referred to using a…masculine pronoun.
In this context, it is difficult to address someone or to refer to a group of people without attributing them to one of two set genders. But we must make it a priority to represent all genders and revolutionize the way we write. By becoming the first country to gather data about transgender and non-binary people through census, Canada is clearly signalling it wants to give every person the visibility they deserve.
Many linguists before us have tried to find solutions to overcome this compelling challenge. And there’s been a wide range of suggestions. After discussing it and debating at length with many people working in my field and outside of it, there is only one thing I can say for sure: no one agrees. Here is a quick overview of the main suggestions so far.
Abbreviated doublets (doublets abrégés) (French only)
A first solution is to add the feminine suffix to gendered terms (substantives, participles, adjectives) using a punctuation mark.
This involves adding the feminine ending, then the plural ending to the masculine root of a term (example: les avocat·e·s for “the lawyers”. The masculine, singular form is avocat, the feminine, singular form is avocate and the plural form would be avocats or avocates depending on the gender.)
This option does face some criticism, however: some argue that abbreviated doublets affect the readability of the text and that the different punctuation marks could be demeaning for the feminine ending. From this perspective, brackets would make the feminine form look like a formality and slashes would mark too strong an opposition between the genders. As for periods, they would simply make sentences unclear. To solve these issues, neutral writing usually uses the interpunct. Unlike the other options, it’s not used in any other context in our daily life: it only shows up in inclusive writing.
Epicene writing (French only)
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term “epicene” designates words that have “but one form to indicate either sex.”
This method involves using neutral terms. For example, by replacing femme (“woman”) or homme (“man”) with individu (“individual”) or personne (“person”), or by using collective terms (le personnel [“the staff”] rather than les employés or employées [“the employees”], le lectorat [“the readership”] rather than les lecteurs or lectrices [“the readers”], etc.).
It also involves carefully choosing constructions to avoid gendered sentences. Circumlocutions, time changes and use of the active or passive voice are among the many tools that can be used to that end. Epicene writing is the most readable solution.
These are terms created specifically to be neither masculine or feminine.
The most famous example of this category is the pronoun iel, a contraction of the masculine pronoun il (“he”) and the feminine pronoun elle (“she”), which made quite an impression when it first entered a French dictionary in 2021. There is also frœur, which would be a neutral alternative to the terms frère (“brother”) and sœur (“sister”), or lectaire, which would allow us to avoid the gendered term lecteur ou lectrice (“reader”).
To keep things short, I chose only to include a quick overview of the new solutions we can use to make texts as inclusive as possible. To find out more on this subject, I recommend checking out the guidelines and resources on inclusive writing (French only) recently published by the Government of Canada.
Among the existing possibilities, we’ve weighed the pros and cons to make our own “recipe” for inclusivity.
CDS’s solution: A lot of epicene writing and some interpuncts
After much brainstorming, my colleagues and I have chosen to use epicene writing as much as possible. It’s universally accepted, as opposed to its alternatives which haven’t been recognized by any linguistic authority.
Here are a few examples:
- Les directeurs sont responsables de l’évaluation des employés. (Use of the masculine form by default)
- The directors are responsible for evaluating the employees.
- La direction est responsable de l’évaluation du personnel. (Epicene writing)
- Management is responsible for evaluating the staff.
- Nous nous sommes entretenus avec les intervenants. (Use of the masculine form by default)
- We have discussed it with the stakeholders.
- Nous avons échangé avec les parties prenantes. (Epicene writing)
- We have discussed it with the stakeholders.
Epicene writing does have one major fault: it can make texts longer. French sentences are already longer than English ones — due to grammatical constructions, numerous prepositions and the rarity of contracted forms —, which causes layout issues and can be even more tricky when it comes to character limits for social media posts.
This is why we decided to complement epicene writing with some abbreviated doublets and a touch of interpuncts. This solution allows us to write neutral content when space is limited, like for tweets or job postings , where role names come up a lot. But moderation is key; accessibility is just as important as inclusivity, and we aim to keep our texts readable.
Inclusive writing will continue to be widely discussed, and French will keep reinventing itself to evolve with our society. But, at this moment, there is no perfect solution to the binary structure of the French language; only detours, compromises and dodges to find some kind of balance. We are not done juggling words!